Wednesday 13 December 2017

The pianist who became a star when Beecham's braces snapped

Vladimir Horowitz was one of the great pianists of the 20th Century. Memories of the brilliance of a dazzling career came flooding back when a performance of his popped up recently on a radio show.

The piece was Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu, and the playing was fresh and vibrant. The remarkable thing was that this was the work of an 86-year-old pianist, just weeks before his death. Horowitz: The Last Recording is on Sony Classical SK 45818.

It's astonishing to think that neither the Fantaisie, nor any of the other music on this disc, had ever before been laid down by the great man. There are five more of Chopin's compositions, some Bach and Liszt, and the Liszt transcription of the final climactic aria from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, 'Liebestod'.

Vladimir Horowitz was born in Kiev, Ukraine, some time in late 1903. His first piano lessons came from his mother. He insisted he was never a prodigy, but he must have had something. He would claim later that he learned nothing from his teachers at the conservatory in Kiev.

The Russian Revolution brought an end to the Horowitz family's comfortable life, and young Vladimir had to play for a living.

His success was instant. Barely into his 20s, Berlin beckoned. He went on to Paris, creating a sensation with every appearance. He first performed in New York in 1928, and in one fell swoop he was a major star there, too.

He was appearing in the second half of a concert with the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall. The conductor was another American debutant, the English maestro Thomas Beecham.

Approaching 50 and well established, Beecham had his own reputation to burnish and had little time for the Ukrainian newcomer. The rehearsal of Horowitz's piece – Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto – had been perfunctory.

On the night, Beecham had a symphony to conduct before he got to Horowitz. Energetically directing the fast-paced final movement of Mozart's 34th, Beecham's braces snapped! It was all he could do to keep his trousers up with one hand while bringing the orchestra to the symphony's conclusion with the other.

The upshot was that he led the Tchaikovsky one-handed, at a tempo far slower than Horowitz was comfortable with. The young pianist reached the start of the finale dismayed and disappointed. But he saw a chance to save the show. The final movement – fiery and fast – gives the pianist full rein early on. Horowitz took it at his accelerated pace, and the conductor had to follow.

Let loose from the lethargy of what had gone before, Horowitz mesmerised his audience. The critics loved it, and a star was born. Not even a series of retirements could dim his allure. He was brilliant. He made his percussive instrument sing.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday.

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